State governments in the Northwest are deciding how to route billions in federal stimulus dollars to local schools. But some districts haven't been sitting idly by, waiting for their checks. They're raising money locally through levies and bond issues.
Case in point, Spokane, where school district officials are touting the economic benefits of a construction bond issue that will appear on the ballot next Tuesday. Correspondent Doug Nadvornick reports.
Hutton Elementary School on Spokane’s South Hill was state-of-the-art when it was built in 1920. Now Greg Brown is showing me that in 2009, it’s just old and small. Brown is the capital projects director for the Spokane School District.
The hardwood floors are worn out. Students park their snowboots outside their classrooms because there isn’t enough closet space inside. And then Brown takes us to the room at the end of the hallway.
Greg Brown: “This is the library. You can see it’s just a couple of converted classrooms.”
Orchestra teacher: “One, two, three, four....”
It also doubles as the orchestra practice room.
Hutton, and several other schools, will get face lifts if Spokane voters approve the district’s $288-million bond issue. At least one, maybe two, schools would be bulldozed and rebuilt. Brown says Hutton would be renovated because of its historic value.
Greg Brown: “It’s a Spanish-style, Mediterranean architecture. Red tile roof, stucco. It’s just a unique building for this area and it’s just a building that we’d want to preserve the architecture.”
But first, there’s the small task of convincing 60-percent of the school district’s voters to approve the measure.
Recent history makes Brown optimistic.
Construction crews are right in the middle of remodeling Spokane’s Shadle Park High School. It’s one of the last projects of a bond issue that voters approved in 2003. That, too, was during a recession.
Associate Superintendent Mark Anderson says the projects helped to keep Spokane’s economy moving while other cities were struggling.
Mark Anderson: “We’ve hired all local architects and engineers. All of our general contractors have come from Spokane and they in turn have hired mostly subcontractors for the Spokane area.”
Anderson says the district would again look to the local construction industry if voters approve this issue.
Just as in Congress and state legislatures, the economic stimulus argument may work in Spokane. But in other places, probably not.
In the small farming town of Prosser, Washington, where Ray Tolcacher is the superintendent, a bond issue was put off.
Ray Tolcacher: “This would just not be the time to put out to our community a tax increase at a time of such uncertainty.”
Paul Rosier from the Washington Association of School Administrators says at least three other districts have also postponed bond issues. Given fears about the economy, he wonders how much taxpayers are willing to fork over for schools.
Paul Rosier: “The situation right now is that we’re all unsure as to where does this thing finally bottom out at and what does that effect have on me personally?”
Economist Randy Barcus says he understands those jitters, but he also sees opportunity. He analyzes the region’s economy for the Spokane power company Avista. Barcus says the prices for construction materials have fallen and the labor force is ready.
Randy Barcus: “There are a lot of contractors and a lot of construction workers that are ready and able to do a lot of this work, whereas that may not have been the case a couple of years ago. So I think the school district’s timing on this, it’s fortuitous.”
Even if Barcus is right, Washington law makes it hard to pass a bond issue. First, districts need 60-percent approval. And second, they need 40-percent of the number of people who voted in the last general election to cast ballots.
Ironically, the huge turnout in the presidential election sets the bar higher for school districts this year.
Spokane officials are running an aggressive bond issue campaign and hoping people will vote with their hopes, not their fears.